Várhelyi responds to letter of S&D MEPs about political situation in Serbia

Commissioner Olivér Várhelyi; Photo: European Union

BELGRADE – European Commissioner for Neighborhood and Enlargement Olivér Várhelyi responded to a June 4 letter from Socialist and Democrat (S&D) MEPs expressing concern over the state of democracy and the political situation in Serbia.

“Please let me reassure you that we are monitoring developments in Serbia very closely. Serbia is a key partner for the EU and has made the strategic choice to join the Union. The credibility of this commitment depends on the Serbian government’s clear public communication and the implementation of the necessary reforms”, reads the response that the European Western Balkans had insight into.

When it comes to the parliamentary, provincial and local elections on June 21, Várhelyi wrote that it is important that all political actors have full confidence in the integrity of the election process.

“Elections should be held in line with the recommendations of the OSCE’s Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights (ODIHR). I welcome the deployment by OD1HR of a  Special Election Assessment Mission, particularly in the current difficult circumstances related to COVID-19. Their reporting will be an important basis for the Commission’s assessment”, Várhelyi wrote.

He added that, especially in the current circumstances, in which certain activities might still be restricted, the role of free media, of a level playing field for all political players, and the proactive role of media regulators is important.

“In this light, it is crucial that the Serbian authorities build on and fully implement the commitments taken under the inter-party dialogue led by the European Parliament”, he wrote.

In conclusion, Várhelyi referred to the criticism of the deputies regarding the signing of the Instruments on Pre-Accession Assistance on May 29, which, in their opinion, could be interpreted as support to one of the parties during the election campaign.

The Commissioner emphasized that this instrument will benefit the state as a whole and its citizens, as well as that attaching importance to the support that Serbia receives from the EU is a key element of the EU communication strategy in the Western Balkans.

What the S&D MEPs wrote about Serbia?

Ten members of the European Parliament from the Progressive Alliance of Socialists and Democrats (S&D), the second largest political group, sent a letter to Enlargement the Commissioner on 4 June, expressing concern about the current political situation in Serbia.

“Democracy, strongly promoted by European Union and its Member States, is now endangered by Serbian leaders and their statements. Taking advantage of the Coronavirus situation, the parliamentary elections, originally planned for 26th April 2020, were postponed to 21st June by the current majority in Parliament while the country is still recovering from COVID-19 pandemic, without first consulting opposition about the new date. No observers from the European Parliament can go to monitor the elections and OSCE/ODIHR sends only a limited mission. Therefore, it is very difficult to envisage a credible political voice on and around Election Day, as the ODIHR assessment will come months later”, they wrote.

The letter to Várhelyi, which the European Western Balkans had an insight into as well, was signed, among others, by the Vice President of the European Parliament Klara Dobrev, the Chair of the EP Delegation for Serbia Tanja Fajon, as well as four MPs from the ruling Italian Democratic Party.

This is the second letter to Várhelyi in two weeks, in which the members of the European Parliament express serious concern about the situation in Serbia. Previous one was sent by MEPs from the liberal group “Renew Europe”.

Their colleagues from the group of Socialists and Democrats wrote that the inter-party dialogue led by the members of the European Parliament, held in the National Assembly of Serbia, was a good step towards a more equal pre-election situation.

Vladimir Bilčik, Tanja Fajon and Oliver Varhelyi at EU info point in Belgrade; Photo: Twitter / tfajon

“However, the information currently presented by the Serbian government and other institutions show a distorted picture of the election process”, MEPs stressed.

They reminded that the main part of the relevant opposition would boycott the elections, although, as they wrote, that could have been prevented by a fair agreement with the Government.

“The situation is made even more difficult by an almost complete control of the media by the ruling political parties and opposition’s inaccessibility or unbalanced coverage in the media”, they added.

MEPs emphasized that Freedom House recently classified Serbia as a “hybrid regime”, and said that they estimate that holding elections in such an environment would only strengthen the unjust and undemocratic system.

“We cannot neglect the strategic and geopolitical role of Serbia, crucial for the stability of the entire Western Balkan region, also considering that EU is one of its largest trading partners. We need to act on the front line to restore a functioning democratic system in Serbia”, they wrote.

The deputies demanded a fairer election procedure and more detailed control, in order to prevent corruption and falsified results.

Finally, they emphasized that it is crucial that the European Commission is not considered active during the election campaign, and thus that it provides support to any political party.

“As such, we would suggest that there are no more public signing ceremonies by EU officials of grants, loans or opening of new projects with members of the Serbian government in the pre-electoral period”, MEPs concluded.